C'mon, you knew it was going to happen. Sooner or later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to have a bad race—and that's exactly what happened in Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Earnhardt finished 24th, one lap off the lead lap.
OK, now that's over, can we please move on?
Let's face it, for all the media attention and fan excitement that Junior's career-best season start delivered—a win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and back-to-back runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas—did anyone realistically expect him to never finish lower than second in the remaining 30-plus races left on the Sprint Cup schedule?
Actually, how he finished at Bristol may be the best thing that could have happened to Junior. He's been a virtual non-stop machine since Daytona. He's been interviewed dozens of times, has been mobbed by fans everywhere he goes and has had little time to soak in what has happened to him thus far in the 2014 season.
Why, he wasn't even able to celebrate the Daytona 500 win with his closest friends and family until just this past week—nearly three weeks after he had won the darned race!
Junior was like a pressure cooker that just kept building in temperature. Sooner or later, it was either going to blow or someone would have to release the steam that had built up within him.
That happened Sunday.
Junior is not to be blamed for what happened at Bristol. He had a marginal car at a track where it's extremely difficult to pass and make up ground once you've fallen behind.
It's why guys like Earnhardt, Tony Stewart (even though he finished fourth in Sunday's race) and even six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson have had some of the most maddening performances of their overall careers at the .533-mile bullring.
Sunday's rain delay after 124 laps didn't help. It definitely played havoc with Earnhardt's karma: He was running up near the front for much of the first quarter of the race until the rain began to fall.
And when racing resumed, slowly but surely there went Junior's karma, his juju, his good fortune.
As the headline on this column succinctly says, there is no cause for concern or alarm now that Junior had an off-day Sunday. There's no need to push the panic button or call out the National Guard (even if they are one of his primary sponsors), and there's most certainly no need to start worrying if Junior is going to backslide much like he did after his solo wins in 2008 and 2012.
I remember those wins quite well. I was at both races at the two-mile Michigan International Speedway.
The Junior I saw after both those wins is significantly different than the Junior I saw win at last month's Daytona 500.
Even after climbing out of Victory Lane both times at Michigan, he still didn't seem sure of himself. Sure, he talked a good game about using each win to go on a tear, but that tear never happened either time.
But what I saw from Junior after his win at Daytona, exuding a confidence that I've never seen in 15 years of covering him, was an eye-opener. He was indeed ready to go on a tear, and he did that in the next two races.
It's a tear that will continue, even despite what happened Sunday at Bristol.
I was at his first Sprint Cup win at Texas in 2000; who can forget the emotional scene of him being embraced and raising hell in Victory Lane with his ever-so-proud father, Dale Sr.?
Since then, Earnhardt has been on a journey that few will ever take.
He was there when his father was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, 10 months after they celebrated Junior's win at Texas.
He's been voted most popular driver by fans the last 11 years (and will likely win again for a 12th time this year).
He nearly burned to death in a sports car crash at Sonoma.
He went through an agonizing power struggle with stepmother Teresa Earnhardt for control of the company his late father founded, Dale Earnhardt, Inc.—and which is now all but defunct.
He came with high expectations to Hendrick Motorsports, only to struggle for his first three years there.
He's had a front-row seat watching teammate Jimmie Johnson win four of his six Sprint Cup Championships, cheering JJ along while likely secretly wishing it was himself celebrating a championship.
Ever since the global economy started going south in 2007, taking a good chunk of NASCAR's fortunes and popularity with it, Earnhardt has been looked upon to almost single-handedly save the sport and bring it back to its once glory days.
Even NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France has said several times that if NASCAR is to return to prosperity, it will take Earnhardt winning a lot of races and championships to bring fans back in the stands and in front of the TV.
This past week at Bristol, after years of being the good-natured, aw shucks apple of so many fans' eyes, Earnhardt admitted Friday that he was "uncomfortable" with "carrying the sport … or being the face of the sport."
I don't blame him for feeling that way. While he may be one of NASCAR's biggest stars, from a performance standpoint, he's far from being a superstar.
He doesn't have any Sprint Cup Championships. He likely puts his pants on the same way that teammates and true superstars Johnson and Jeff Gordon do, yet they have 10 Cup Championships between them, while he hasn't been able to earn even one in his 15-year tenure in NASCAR's marquee series.
It's clear that Junior has come to the realization that he's not necessarily deserving of the lofty status that so many have bestowed upon him over the years.
"There are so many other drivers – there’s guys like Jimmie (Johnson) – who have done so much and accomplished much more than I have," Earnhardt said. "They do a lot to elevate the sport.
"They do a lot of things that, you know, carry the sport as well or better than I do. It’s just very uncomfortable because I don’t have the accolades and the hardware that a lot of these guys have, like a championship and things like that."
But the thing is Junior is working harder than ever to reach that mountaintop. He's a more serious driver, is completely on the same page with crew chief Steve Letarte and likely realizes that 2014 could be the biggest year of his career, with the potential of the ultimate prize of his first Sprint Cup Championship waiting for him to grab.
He's not going to let what may perhaps be his best—and last—opportunity for a championship slip by him.
So even though he's accomplished so much in the first three races, Sunday's performance will likely only be a blip. I expect Earnhardt to be back in either Victory Lane or, at the very least, the top five this Sunday at Fontana.
No one can be perfect in every race, and with the start Junior had in the first three races, expectations began to overtake reality and perception.
Will he have another bad race or two or maybe even three this season? Probably.
Will he also find his way back to Victory Lane a time or two or maybe even more, as well? Based upon what he showed in the first three races, that's almost a definite given.
Junior had an off-day, plain and simple, Sunday at Bristol—one of the easiest places on Earth for that to happen, given the nature of how difficult that tiny half-mile bullring has been for so many drivers for more than 50 years.
What happened Sunday could have happened to anyone—and it has. It just happened to be Junior's turn this time. Next time, it'll likely be someone else's turn.
All quotes used were obtained from a Chevrolet transcript of Earnhardt's weekly media session this past Friday at Bristol.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!